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Free, fully functional access can increase sales!

As GPO looks for a way to find a new business model that allows it “bring revenues in the door” (as Mr. James says) and at the same time provide “free and ready public access” to electronic documents (as the GPO Strategic Plan says), it might do well to look at this:

South African lessons: Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC). (Lessig Blog, May 27, 2005). In this blog posting, Lawrence Lessig notes the experience of the HSRC in changing their publishing model. They started “to give away all their research books for free online, and offer a high quality print-on-demand service for anyone who wants the paper version. The result: ‘the sales turnover of the publishing department has risen by 300%.'” The posting has links to more information.

The clear lessons from this seem to be a) that it is possible to make money by selling paper and ink and b) that giving away digital versions can even increase sales.

This is very different, however, from GPO’s description in its Strategic Plan, to distribute electronic documents “on a cost recovery basis.” GPO tried that with the first version of GPO Access and, as Mr. James described the results, it made “…no sense at all” and they had to “quit it.”

This leads me to ask these questions again:

  • Can GPO provide fully-functional free access to government information and still make money selling digital government information?
  • Can GPO distribute fully-functional digital files to depository libraries and expect to sell the same digital information to individuals or the private sector?
  • Does GPO intend to make money selling digital content by providing “free and ready public access” to less-than-fully-functional digital content (e.g., viewable, but not printable or downloadable)?

What we need from GPO is a clear answer to these questions.

CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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